Part 2—Kristof’s account feels good: In his latest New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof told a morally-uplifting story.
In one way, it’s a perfect story of perfect forgiveness. It’s also a story of human resilience. For part 1 in this series, click here.
Kristof’s story, which is familiar, tugged at the heartstrings. Judging from reactions in comments, it made many liberal heartstrings soar.
The story, which seems to be largely accurate, basically went like this:
Back in 1990, a young woman named Debbie Baigrie was attacked in the streets of Tampa by several teenagers one night.
One attacker, Ian Manuel, was only 13 years old. Despite his tender years, he had already been arrested sixteen times.
As part of a gang initiation, Manuel shot Baigrie in the face. The injuries required “10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries” to Baigrie’s face and mouth, according to Kristof’s account.
Manuel was soon arrested again; he admitted shooting Baigrie. Despite his age, he was sentenced to life in prison without hope of parole.
Here’s where the story gets heartwarming. When Manuel was 14 or 15, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie from prison. Baigrie accepted the call. A correspondence ensued.
From there, Kristof tells a perfect story of perfect selfless forgiveness. Based on comments, many readers were deeply moved by this perfectly shaped moral tale:
KRISTOF (12/14/14): Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” [Manuel] wrote in one letter. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” [Manuel] wrote in one letter.“Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades.” Or at least, so Kristof said.
Over time, Baigrie became friendly with Manuel’s brother and mother. Baigrie began to feel sympathetic because, as she says: “When you’re 13, you do stupid stuff.”
“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”
Baigrie was also troubled by the racial dimensions of the case. “If he was a cute white boy at 13, with little dimples and blue eyes, there’s no way this would have happened,” she says.
Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’ ” Baigrie recalls.
Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.
This is a perfect story of perfect saintly forgiveness. Baigrie, who is one in a million, rejects the skeptical reactions of her husband and her friends.
She becomes friendly with Manuel’s mother and brother. This being a column by the new-and-improved, racially-conscious Kristof, she’s inevitably troubled by what she takes to be the racial discrimination involved in Manuel’s original sentence.
Baigrie becomes the advocate for her assailant’s early release. Even today, twenty-four years later, she is working on Manuel’s behalf.
This story is built on an unusual base—the sentencing of someone who is just 13 to life with without hope of parole in an adult prison. As Kristof continues, the story becomes even more disturbing, then becomes a story of human resilience:
KRISTOF (continuing directly): Manuel, now 37, did not adjust well to prison, and his prison disciplinary record covers four pages of single-spaced entries. He was placed in solitary confinement at age 15 and remained there almost continually until he was 33. For a time, he cut himself to relieve the numbness. He repeatedly attempted suicide.The story becomes more horrible here. Manuel isn’t just sentenced to life without hope of parole. He then endures roughly 18 years of solitary confinement. Based on other journalistic accounts, Kristof underplays the psychological horrors of this type of confinement.
Returned to the general prison population, Manuel did better. He earned his G.E.D. with exceptional marks, including many perfect scores. He drafts poems and wrote an autobiographical essay, which Baigrie posted on her Facebook page. His mother, father and brother are now all dead; the only “family” he has left is Baigrie, who sometimes regards him as a wayward foster son.
In obvious ways, this is a terrible story—but this is where the perfect story of human resilience starts. Kristof pleases us with his story of Manuel’s personal improvement, which is captured by Manuel’s “perfect scores” and those “exceptional marks.”
Can we talk? Everyone has seen this movie a hundred times. Unfortunately, it’s a Hollywood movie. In many ways, it’s brainless and simple-minded.
We don’t mean that people who are 13 years old should be sent to adult prisons. We don’t mean that they should be sentenced to life without hope of parole.
We don’t mean that someone who is 15 should spend the next 18 years of his life in solitary confinement. We agree with Baigrie’s statement about the stupidity of 13-year-olds.
(Depending on where the 13-year-old lives, the stupidity to which he finds himself drawn may even involve use of guns.)
We don’t mean that Baigrie was wrong to advocate for her assailant. We aren’t judging Baigrie here. We’re judging Kristof’s journalism, which we think is very poor.
What was “wrong” with Kristof’s journalism on this heartwarming occasion? So many things that we won’t be able to examine them today.
For today, we’ll only say this. In our view, Kristof’s column was simple-minded in many ways, some of which we haven’t even mentioned.
This column was also perfectly built to divide the nation’s tribes—to drive a wedge between groups of people who bring different instinctive reactions to stories of this type. In our view, it’s easy to fashion a column like this—and it tends to make it harder for the nation’s warring tribes to come together to fashion improvements in the society’s practices.
What makes this column so thoroughly simple-minded? Tomorrow, we’ll look at the way Kristof takes us back to the 1970s—back to a set of simplistic, simple-minded bromides which helped create a conservative era the last time they were bruited about by lazy thinkers from within our own liberal tribe.
Kristof is a former Rhodes Scholar from Harvard. In our view, it’s very hard to discern these facts from his lazy, unhelpful work.
Tomorrow: “It’s our fault more than his,” Kristof unhelpfully said